Monday, August 18, 2003
FORTY FIGS per day, every day, for eighty days. If you are what you eat, then I was made of some of the best stuff on Earth. This I told myself often as I conversed with my reflection in the bathroom mirror.
In addition to figs, I also ate apples, passion fruit, guavas, citrus fruits, fish, seaweed, arugula, and forty or so other wild foods that I gathered and hunted in and around the town of Isla Vista, California, during my last quarter at U.C. Santa Barbara. I was living off the land in an urban setting, and "My Project," as I called it, was my preoccupation for 10 long weeks.
It took only an hour or two per day to gather all the food I needed -- figs were my staple -- but whether sitting in class or at work with my archaeology professor, trying to read, hungry or full, food was nearly all I thought about. It nearly drove me crazy. At which trees would I stop on my way home for lunch? What would I make? Oh, damn, I'll have to go all the way to the end of Trigo Road for a pomegranate! Shoot, my avocados probably aren't ripe yet! Could I make something different instead? My mind could get little rest.
So out came my notebook, and I would scribble down a "shopping list" and a "meal plan," which would temporarily ease my mind. Then, after class or work, as I rode my bike home, I would leisurely fill up a bag with whatever I needed for my curry, salad, or stir-fry. I kept a journal all the while, recording recipes and any interesting thoughts I had.
And I indulged. I had a friend with a great vegetable garden, and the streets of Isla Vista are very well endowed with fruit trees, so I had access to everything from fresh cilantro and basil to zucchinis, leeks, and some of the best figs I have ever eaten. I couldn't, I admit, find and grind my own spices and make my own wine and vinegar, but I restrained any frequent use of these peripheral store-bought items, and I refused to buy anything substantial.
Despite my commitment to My Project, I started to feel frustrated and lonely: for eighty days I never ate out, left little time for friends, and lived a routine rigidly structured by the cooking of an elaborate lunch a little after noon and a two- or three-course dinner for one at around 8:00 p.m. These predictable days and meals really began to get to me, and one day, in class during week five, I actually resolved that that night I would make some tortillas and beans with my regular figs and fish. But for some reason I lost or repressed the urge, and My Project went on uninterrupted and untarnished by store-bought foods.
I got some inspiring encouragement from a number of individuals during My Project. They marveled at how great it was and exclaimed that they would some day try to do something similar. They thought it was a good thing to boycott the American market and a shame more people didn't appreciate nature's bounty the way I did. These, though, were usually just acquaintances of mine. The people closest to me, more often than not, criticized what I was doing. They said I was becoming weird and that my obsession was taking over my life. They said that I was alienating myself and that all I ever did was gather, cook, and eat. And I think that if I had had more close friends I would have heard this kind of talk even more often.
The truth is, I almost agreed. Even now I don't believe what I did was very constructive. It was a memorable time in my life, to be sure, and it was a good thing to have tried. But to carry on like that forever would have been, for me, social suicide. To be an individual hunter-gatherer in America is to lead a lonely life.
During My Project, I was taking an anthropology class at school called "Ancient Food Production and Consumption." Hunter-gatherers, I learned, live freer lives, with more leisure time, than agriculturalists. Twelve to eighteen hours per person per week is all time needed by the famous !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, to collect all the food they need. This leaves more time for reflection and relaxation than most people in our affluent society ever have -- the !Kung don't need to work to pay rent. I also had a lot of free time -- school and work were for me only a small time obligation -- but even when full and satiated and liberated from the physical desire for food, I couldn't relax, I was held captive by thoughts of food. I sometimes dreamed of figs and climbing around in trees.
Although it seemed My Project was some kind of intellectual or anthropological experiment, I often felt like a wild animal. I felt My Project changing its trajectory, beginning a pointless descent into brain-dead barbarism. I was afraid of sinking to a level of wretchedness reserved for starving mongrels; I loved picking vegetables and climbing fruit trees, but I didn't want my mind to be stunted by this false concern for finding food.
I would try to tell myself as consolation that I was somehow perfecting my body and soul, that I was the healthiest person in town. But everywhere and everyday I encountered other people, people smarter and healthier and stronger than I, eating meals out of Burger King bags or Styrofoam smoothie cups, looking perfectly happy. Seeing these people who were filling their bellies up with crap yet seeming content -- while I went about with swinging emotions and filled with fish and figs -- made me wonder if I wasn't the one who was full of shit. Food is food is food, isn't it?
Seeing these people often left me feeling alone and in deep doubt of my values. I found myself occasionally carrying out discussions with and even cursing myself in the bathroom mirror. "What are you doing to yourself? What's the greater good of all this?" I could never answer these questions, and yet I carried on with My Project.
Yet these bouts of frustration and depression interspersed happy times. I would wake up early, usually around six, and when I didn't already have food I would walk in the dawn to find something for a morning salad. These were quiet and relaxing times, when the rest of the college community was still sleeping, and it felt like I had the whole world to myself. My generous friend Ryan had two blocks away in his yard a huge Turkish fig tree that produced an exceptional bounty of the most heavenly fruits. The tree was about thirty feet tall, and I spent many hours in those branches, filling bags with ripe fruit or just stuffing myself. The tree's figs were as big as small apples, green outside and bright crimson inside, and the best were those so ripe that they had burst open. They had begun to ferment inside and tasted faintly of wine.
Ryan's tree was the best in town, but I had good times elsewhere. Mostly it was with figs and I became familiar with seven or eight varieties, some the size of pears. But I also haunted a passion fruit vine that hung over the sidewalk a block from my home, many pineapple guava shrubs, a pear tree, some persimmon trees, a blackberry bush, and one particularly fruitful apple tree.
I enjoyed the treasure-hunt feel of it. I loved spotting fig trees, knocking on doors and getting permission from owners, and seeking out the big, ripe fatties that were splitting open at the bottom. It could be fun.
But it could be awful, too. Figs are members of the rubber tree family and secrete white, sticky latex that can irritate the skin. Having eaten approximately three thousand in three months, I am all too familiar with the potential consequences. Sometimes after a fig jaunt, I would slink home, bloated and heavy, with my mouth and tongue burning and actually seeping blood. All I could do was drink some water, lie down in bed, and wait several hours for the pain to go away.
"How much weight have you lost?" people would so often ask me when first learning of My Project. It was a question of which I quickly grew weary. I guess the American societal assumption is that anyone not dining out or buying processed snacks and shrink-wrapped meats is at high risk of wasting away. During those ten weeks, though, I lost no weight and might even have put on three or four pounds. I got my protein from spear fishing in the sea for surfperch, halibut, sheephead, opaleye, and octopus. Once in a while I grabbed scallops, sea urchins, and lobster. Various other nutrients I got from vegetables and herbs, while the bulk of my calories came from figs and apples, many of which I pickled and canned. I really was eating the best stuff on Earth, and I was thriving on it.
The climate in Southern California is remarkable. In November, while winter storms pound the North Coast and the fruit trees of the Central Valley are mostly bare, the coastal region inside of the Channel Islands is a warm, green, and rather peaceable kingdom. I continued to eat well and enjoy the long summer even at the onset of December.
But winter finally arrived. My last venture into the sea was on the fifth day of December, and the fig trees were getting picked clean. It was sad, and even ominous, watching the leaves fall and the fruits disappear. It got to the point where I knew exactly how many figs were left on certain trees, and one by one I stopped visiting them. The remaining figs grew less and less sweet.
Able now to count the producing fig trees on two hands, I was not eating as lavishly as before. I was becoming anxious that I would not make it through to the end of the term. My gathering forays were becoming less enjoyable. In my hasty visits to my food sources, I was accidentally snapping tree branches and trampling vegetable gardens, and I even knocked over somebody's cactus plant as I stole its prickly pears from over a chain-link fence. For the first time, I worried that I might get arrested for stealing precious fruit and sneaking in the dark.
My journal entry for December 16, 2002, captures my decrepitude:
I feel as though a climactic disaster is imminent in my life if I don't leave here soon. Neighbors, I believe, are on to me. All the bridges of Isla Vista are burning. I sneak around only in darkness. The figs are all gone. The only ones left are hard green ones that make my mouth bleed. I stole a pumpkin a few days back from the garden . . . It's feeding me, as are chard and avocadoes, a few prickly pears, and oranges. The apples are mostly gone. My frozen figs and jarred fruits are all eaten. If I had two more weeks here I'd have to reduce myself to the level of an animal, going through garbage bins at night, living in fear and hunger. I can't stand this town. I feel its walls collapsing in . . . I feel so dirty. I shaved off my goatee yesterday, and I considered buzzing off my long hair . . . I want to cleanse myself of this whole quarter, throw everything into the fires of the burning bridges.
I really felt that I had become a shameless thief and a coward; that I had given up all my self-respect; and that I was going a little crazy, all for the sake of My Project.
Fortunately, I left two days later -- I graduated with a double degree. My dad picked me up in our van, and we ate at a horrible Mexican restaurant on the drive home to San
Francisco. My dad was just in time. A storm had recently arrived, its wind knocking fruit off trees and its rain turning fruit into a thick, rotting mess. My dad was glad to see me and said he was happy to find I hadn't turned into a bag of bones. He even said I looked good. I smiled modestly and nodded. I was made purely and solidly, through to the bone, down to my heart, of the best stuff on Earth.
Hot and Spicy Fig Soup
1 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
Seeds of 1 large pomegranate
8 very ripe figs
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
Pinch of allspice
Bring orange juice and pomegranate seeds to boil in a pot, add spices, and a minute later add figs. Simmer until the figs are soft. Add honey if you have access to a beehive. Eat as a soup.
Halibut Baked Fruit
1 coarsely chopped pear
1 chopped apple
8 ripe figs
1 generous piece of fresh halibut, cut into 1-inch cubes
Salt and pepper
Mix fruit, fish, salt, and pepper in a small ceramic baking dish. Bake at 350 degrees for twenty minutes or until fruit juices are bubbling and fish is done. Put in broiler for several minutes if a crispy surface is desired. Sprinkle with balsamic vinegar before eating.
Scallop and Fig Curry Salad
Meat of eight scallops
Half cup water
2 tablespoon soy sauce
5 ripe figs, quartered
1 small bunch of arugula
10 mint leaves
Rice wine vinegar
2 chili peppers
2 cloves of garlic
1-inch piece of ginger, chopped
1 tablespoon yellow curry paste
Simmer scallops in water and soy sauce for thirty seconds. Drain and reserve the liquid.
For the curry sauce, simmer in a pan for several minutes the chili peppers, garlic, ginger, curry paste, and reserved liquid from the scallop saute.
Pour curry sauce over scallops and figs. Garnish with finely chopped mint and arugula mixed with coarsely cut avocado meat. Drizzle with vinegar and sprinkle with pepper.
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Alastair Bland is a freelance writer in San Francisco
Image: Luis Meléndez, Still Life with Figs and Bread (detail), 1760s, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC